March 21, 2015
It's a mad house! A mad house!
Planet of the Apes was huge phenomenon from the late sixties through the mid-seventies. Not as big as what Star Wars would become perhaps (of course nothing is as big as Star wars), but people certainly went ape for the apes and the franchise could boast an impressive resume. It had five feature films, one TV show, one Saturday morning cartoon and an endless stream of merchandise including action figures, board games, coloring books, lunchboxes, Halloween costumes, bubblegum cards and God only knows what else. So why, you might ask, wasn’t there any 2600 ape game? The answer is there was, it just was never finished.
You see 20th Century Fox executives decided to open up an interactive games division and cash in on the (then still new) video game craze. They had already made one of Hollywood’s biggest blunders by trading George Lucas the merchandizing rights to Star Wars in exchange for him taking a salary cut as the film’s director (good show) but they still had some hot commodities and PotA was a natural fit that its target audience (young male video gamers) loved. Things, unfortunately, did not go well. The designer quit the company before the game was finished and Fox closed down the game division a few months later with all production being immediately stopped. (Damn you short-sighted Hollywood executives! Goddamn you all to hell!) PotA (along with all the other games) was put in a box and tossed into the Forbidden Zone. Worse, the box was mislabeled so it took quite a while for it to be rediscovered AND correctly identified (although you’d think the half-buried Statue of Liberty screen would be a big clue).
Here’s how the game works… You play the part of astronaut Taylor – the Charlton Heston role in the first film. The top of the screen tells you how many life points you have (you start with 60) and how many escape points you have (you start with 6). If you run out of life points you’re dead, game over. If you run out of escape points and you get captured or trapped, you’re imprisoned/trapped forever, also game over. You begin on a forest screen with trees that make movement difficult. There are also several pits and, if you fall into one, you must hit the ‘fire’ button to use one of your escape points to free yourself. These early forest screens essentially recreate the famous hunt scene in the film because, in addition to the pits and the trees (although oddly no corn field), there are apes – lots of them.
The apes will begin running across most screens a second or two after Taylor enters it. There are two ways to deal with them – you can dodge (no pun intended) and run past them or you can shoot them since Taylor carries a rifle like at the end of the film. You can only shoot to the left or right and, considering the restrictive nature of the terrain, it’s not always easy to take out the selected target. Killing a chimpanzee scores only a few points, and if you’re touched by one nothing happens. Killing an orangutan scores a whopping 200 points. (Take that Dr. Zaius!) Furthermore, if you’re touched by one you’ll lose some life points and be captured. Killing a gorilla scores only 42 points. If you’re touched by one you’ll lose major life points. Like with orangutans, you’ll also be captured. Plus, being the soldiers of ape society, they carry rifles and will shoot at you as they pass. Gorillas only shoot up and down.
If you’re touched by a gorilla or orangutan you will be captured and thrown into a cage in Ape City. (Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!) All the City screens look alike – there’s a central cage surrounded by narrow streets that restrict your movement. To get out of the cage you simply hit the ‘fire’ button to use an escape point. You must be careful, however, since there are lots of apes in the city and you may escape only to be immediately touched and recaptured. On the other paw, if you just loiter in the cage you’ll be hit and shot at by passing apes so you can’t be too picky.
The object of the game is to have Taylor follow (at least in broad strokes) the path he took in the movie. First you move through the forest/hunt screens and, if you’re captured, go through Ape City. Next you head into the Forbidden Zone represented by many desert screens. Here the apes still attack, and there are more gorillas to deal with, but you have more room to maneuver. Then you enter a series of caves – not quite like the movie but close enough. There are no apes here but you do take damage while moving through them. There are many cave exits but most of them will send Taylor back to an earlier screen: forest, desert or city. If you find the right exit you end up on a flashing screen with a half-buried Statue of Liberty. Here you receive a 1200 point bonus along with some extra life points and an escape point. You’re then sent back to the start screen and start all over again except that the apes now move faster, do more damage and appear in greater numbers.
One of the problems with reviewing an unfinished cartridge is that you don’t really know what the designer had in mind for the finish line. The meat and potatoes of the design are certainly here and I can see the potential for greatness but what final tweaks were to be added to tie it all together? Unfortunately I can only go by what’s currently on the screen and PotA–as is—has problems. The biggest of these is a basic lack of motivation for the player to advance the story. Most games like this have a specific ending with the player receiving bonuses based on how well he/she did. The replay value comes from trying to find a better way to run the gauntlet. As PotA currently stands, however, once you reach the end you merely start over on a higher difficulty level. The 1200+ point bonus you receive is nice but, if you’re looking to rack up points, you’re better off just hanging out on an early easy screen and shooting orangutans for 200 points a pop. Yet how long can you do that before you get bored? Ten minutes? Twenty?
I give this unfinished version of Planet of the Apes 3/5 stars with the acknowledgement that, with some good polishing, the final release would have scored a 4 or possibly even a classic 5.
You might have noticed that although I’ve told you the places you’ll go I haven’t told the direction they’re in. This is because finding your way adds an extra initial element of fun. The truth is, once you know where to go, you can race from the start screen to the Statue of Liberty in less than 60 seconds and the fun quickly diminishes. If, however, you’re just looking to take the 50 cent tour you can visit this web page…
…for a complete walk through.
This section is not part of the review. It’s just my thoughts (pipe dreams?) on improving the game because this is what a fanatic does when coming across a 30+ year old cartridge (from a hopelessly outdated system) that few people have even heard of much less care about. I’ve tried to keep the suggestions simple so that the 2600 could actually accommodate them. Feel free to add your own. You know the saying, "Human see, human do."
*The game should end the first time Taylor reaches the Statue of Liberty screen with the player receiving bonuses based on getting there quickly and how many life and escape points are left. You can select a difficulty level before the game begins.
*The game should have a countdown timer to prod the player along to the finish.
*The ape world should be standardized into a grid of around 7x30 screens. You start in the forest screens, then the city screens (thus Taylor must go through Ape City whether or not he’s captured), then the desert, the caverns and the end.
*Apes should move across the screen in both directions to increase the level of difficulty.
*Chimpanzees should deal out 1 LP of damage when touched. (There’s precedent for this in the movie when Taylor gets pelted with vegetables by chimps in the market.) Right now they are simply ghosts that can be entirely ignored.
*Gorillas should be more prevalent to increase the difficulty.
*An ape killed by Taylor should always be replaced with a gorilla. This would not only represent the military showing up to investigate but would also prod the player on to the next screen.
*Taylor should have a limited supply of bullets. He can get more by killing a gorilla.
*A cornfield screen should be randomly placed in the forest. [See Nova below]
*A bridge should be added to the river screen to add a bottleneck challenge.
*Scarecrows (like those seen in the movie) should be placed in desert screens. The scarecrows would both add some film ambiance and act as navigational guides.
*There should only be 1 entrance screen to the caves. It should be randomly placed at the end of the desert screens (thus forcing the player to look for it), marked by a small building or ladder, and populated with gorillas only.
*A final battle screen should be added after finding the correct exit from the caves. The sides of the screen should be blocked by a cliff (brown stripe) on one side and the sea (blue stripe) on the other. The screen should contain only gorillas and Dr. Zaius. [See Dr. Zaius below]
Characters should be added to provide some film ambiance and to give Taylor minor goals to reach.
*NOVA should be found in the cornfield screen. [See above] She has no special powers but adds a significant bonus if safely escorted to the Statue of Liberty. If Taylor is captured, she goes to a random forest square.
*ZIRA should be found in a random Ape City screen. She heals Taylor of all wounds and sneaks (i.e. teleports) him to a screen past the city.
*CORNELIUS should be found in a random cave screen (at his dig site). He equips the player with a full supply of bullets (assuming the limitation idea is used) and guides (i.e. teleports) Taylor to the correct cave exit screen.
*DR. ZAIUS is found in the final battle screen (assuming the idea is used). He quickly moves across the screen in both directions. He cannot be killed but, if he touches you, Taylor is immediately killed. Game over.
Yes, I do need to get a life. Hmm … Maybe there’s a doomsday bomb I can start worshiping.